LOVE FOR ALL - BIG, SMALL

A rooster named Fancy announces my arrival - or at least I'd like to think so - just as Jessica Lange, a pretty little barn kitty, runs up and welcomes me to Rancho Relaxo.

This quirky Salem County animal sanctuary's other residents quickly make themselves known as well, including Cale, a goat who introduces himself to me with a head butt.

And then a mini-donkey with a mocha coat as soft as a cloud ambles right up to the fence for a cuddle. What a sweetheart!

"This is Pepito," says Caitlin Stewart, who established Rancho Relaxo on a modest 19th-century farm she purchased in 2012. "We saved Pepito from the slaughter line."

All of Stewart's animals - 14 chickens, four horses, two turkeys, two pigs, two goats, two sheep, Pepito, a mini-pony named Britney Spears, and who knows how many barn cats - were rescued from abuse, neglect, abandonment, or death.

"Fancy was a rainbow chick, being sold outside a bar in Philly," Stewart says. "They inject dye into the [mother] to color the feathers. Sometimes it kills them."

Stewart also has found adoptive homes for, or placed with rescue groups or shelters, about 100 other needy creatures - including a pot-bellied pig and a dairy cow and calf.

Rancho Relaxo has limited space and does not accept drop-offs; it is not an adoption center. But Stewart regularly gets texts from people trying to help animals in distress and is happy to facilitate connections.

"She's great," says Tamala Lester, who runs Barnyard Sanctuary for large animals in Warren County.

"I've watched animals blossom," says Stewart, 31, who's been a clerical worker for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families for nearly 10 years. "I can't explain how fulfilling this is."

An animated, enthusiastic woman with a vivid personal style - blond braid, brown overalls, elaborate ink-work "sleeves" on both arms - Stewart grew up in Ocean County. Despite allergies, she always loved animals and imagined becoming a pet-store owner or a veterinarian.

"I didn't know anyone else who had all these animals living in their little bedroom," recalls longtime friend Deja de Leon, 33, a packaging designer who lives in Brick Township. "She had a dog, bunnies, turtles. . . . It was amazing."

Stewart was 12 when she got her first horse, Lucky Joe; five years ago, a filly named Halona indirectly led to the founding of Rancho Relaxo.

"She was a feral horse, a mustang," Stewart recalls. "She was technically a rescue because a lot of these mustangs end up slaughtered."

Stewart boarded Halona at the home of a friend, slowly gaining the filly's trust. "I watched her flourish," she says. "I realized, 'I really want my horse in my own backyard.' "

Her search for a Salem County farm - and for a second horse to keep Halona company - led her to what is now Rancho Relaxo, whose owner sold Stewart a rescued thoroughbred named Jake along with the property.

As behavioral issues and veterinary examinations shed light on what Stewart's first two horses apparently went through before adoption, "I couldn't turn my back on any animal that was neglected or abused," she says.

"I realized that I could help more of them. . . . I swear, it's all fate, how this happened."

Call it fate, or karma - Tibetan prayer flags sent by supporters flutter all over the farmyard - the existence of Rancho Relaxo surely owes a lot to hard work, too.

"I don't want to toot my own horn, but I also don't want anyone to think this is easy," says Stewart, who rises as early as 4:30 to take care of the animals.

Rancho Relaxo is a noncommercial "hobby" farm, and the costs - hay alone can run $1,200 a month in winter - are borne by Stewart, fiancé Len Cimini, and father Gustave Stewart, who live on the property.

Stewart has registered Rancho Relaxo as a nonprofit organization (its tax-exempt status is pending). She accepts but does not depend on donations; Rancho Relaxo T-shirts also help raise funds.

A freelance photographer, she also uses her visual skills to supply images and witty, hip-hop-flavored videos of her charges to social media, where the mischievous Cale ("a spoiled brat," she insists) has a devoted following.

Rancho Relaxo itself has 4,800 Facebook friends and 21,000 Instagram followers; the support reassures Stewart's faith in humanity on those dark days when she learns of yet another case of abuse or neglect.

"I look at animals as beings. Living, breathing beings," Stewart says. "At Rancho Relaxo, they can do whatever they want. They can live their lives."

kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.philly.com/blinq